A Guide to Reading the Bible

Let’s face it, the Bible is not something that is easy to read. It’s a collection of written documents that span at the least 2000 years (probably more). It was written by and for a culture that looks very little like our modern world, especially mine in the United States. It is full of names that sound foreign (because they are), references that make little sense to our urban world, and it’s full of miraculous stories that cause even the least skeptical person to pause. There is no shortage of reasons why people might not bother to read the Bible, whether they are Christian or not. Yet it is something that I believe every person should read because those who search for truth will find it within those pages. It is because I believe this that I want to help you encounter the Bible, and hopefully experience a bit of the divine Creator revealed in those stories.

First, if you are going to read the Bible, please (please, please, please!) get your own copy of it in a translation that makes sense to you. I recommend the New International Version (NIV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), New Living Translation (NLT), New American Standard Bible (NASB), The Message (not a translation, but still good for reading), or Common English bible (CEB). These are all relatively new translations and take into account the best of recent scholarship. The King James Version is a translation of translations and is difficult to understand, let alone interpret. Once you’ve decided on a version, get yourself a Study Bible. This will have notes, references, and other helpful tools for your study of the Bible. (If you’re lucky it’ll even have a pronunciation guide to help you with all those weird names.) Personally I used a few Bibles in my own study (NIV, CEB, NLT, and The Message) but you don’t need more than one unless you’re a nerd like me and want to compare them.

Once you’ve got your Bible you need to look at the Table of Contents. You’ll see that it is divided up into two groups called “Old Testament” and “New Testament”. I’m going to break it down even further for you, but first I want to say that the “Old Testament” was the only Bible Jesus would have known.
When you opent he bible you’ll see the order, and as you read you’ll come across the “Books of the Law” or the “Torah” it’s talking about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; the first five books in the Bible. These books are “the Old Testament of the Old Testament”. They tell the origin story, reflect upon why humanity and creation seems broken and how suffering entered the world, who are God’s people and what happened to them. It also tells of who God is and what it looks like to be “delivered”. After those books you’ve got Joshua and Judges which deal with Israel taking possession of the Promised Land. Ruth and 1 Samuel which transitions us into the Monarchy of Israel. 2 Samuel through 2 Kings (1 and 2 Chronicles cover the same time period as 1 Samuel through 2 Kings) tells of the monarchy and it’s collapse down into exile when Assyria and then Babylon conquer and take the people of Israel/Judah away from the Promised land. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther tell of those years while Israel was in exile in Babylon and then Persia (when the Persians conquered Babylon). Then things get really confusing in the Old Testament because that’s the end of the story of until the New Testament, but not the end of the Old Testament. You’ve got Job, which is a wisdom story about suffering that doesn’t really fit anywhere. Then you’ve got 150 Psalms, which is the playlist for Israel during it’s monarchy. The psalms are songs, poems, and liturgical readings of the people of YHWH around the time of the Monarchy and afterward. Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings from the ancient near east. A lot of it is very general and probably not exclusive to Israel, but it is all good and helpful to read. Ecclesiastes is like Proverbs, but it is more of a reflection on life from a philosopher. Song of Songs is about love and sex in a healthy relationship. What’s especially great about Song of Songs is that it was written from a female perspective, which is almost unheard of in the ancient world. Then you get into the Major and Minor prophets (major because they are long, and minor because they are short). These almost all fit into the time of Israel’s divided monarchy and the exile (1 and 2 Kings). Your good study Bible will help guide you to the part of the story where the prophet most likely fits in the story.

I realize this is getting long, hang in there and we’ll go through the New Testament. I’ll have more tips in the next post, so stay tuned.

Between the return from exile and the beginning of the New Testament there were roughly 400 years of history. Some books that were almost included in the Bible (called Apocrypha) tell of some of those years (Maccabees and Esdras). So if your Bible has those in it, they are good reading, but aren’t normally considered authoritative.

The New Testament begins with four stories about Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of them were written with a purpose and to an audience, so they are going to be a little different. Mark is probably the oldest of these four. Matthew and Luke are similar to Mark and therefore these three are called “Synoptic Gospels”. Matthew has lots of references to prophecies and other parts of the Old Testament (probably because he was writing for a predominantly Jewish audience). Luke has a lot to do with Gentiles and justice (probably because it was written for a Greek or Roman (Gentile) audience) as part 1 of the story with Acts being part 2. John was written from a more mystical standpoint and tends to focus on miracles and what it means for God to be known in and through Jesus. Each of these gospels is important because they tell of Jesus and reveal to use who God is in Jesus. You will have seen clues throughout the Old Testament, but here we get it “straight” (maybe). After the Gospels you get Luke part 2, the Acts of the Apostles. This story tells of the transformation and transition of the message of Jesus going from Jerusalem (Jewish center) to Rome (the rest of the world). Then you’ve got letters from Paul (one of the main characters in Acts) to many of the churches he planted or related to in the book of Acts. Each letter (Romans through 2 Thessalonians) is written to a historical church because Paul has heard of something that needs to be addressed there (looking at you Corinth), or that he intends to visit (Romans). 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were letters from Paul to individuals also dealing with specific things, but these are not necessarily for a group of people, but the person they were written to (not to say we can’t learn from them, but writing to a person is different than writing to a group). Hebrews is a sermon that someone recorded and preserved for us (probably by a guy named Apollos). James is a lot like the Proverbs of the New Testament and is full of good wisdom, and this too may be a sermon that was recorded. 1 and 2 Peter are letters written to early Christians struggling to live faithfully in the world while waiting for Jesus’ return (and probably not both written by the same person). 1,2, and 3 John are more pastoral letters attributed to John with instructions on how to live as Jesus’ disciples. Jude is a very short letter written to deal with a situation in a local congregation, still good for learning. Revelation (NOT Revelations) is an apocalyptic record of a visionary experience that informs the people of God (probably around the late 60s CE) of how to be faithful to the Kingdom of God in a world that is hostile to that Kingdom.

Whew, we made it through the Table of Contents…Now it’s time to start thinking about actually reading the Bible. Where you start is up to you, but I recommend people start with Genesis, then Exodus, and then one of the four Gospels. You’ll skip a lot, but to truly understand what is going on in the Bible you need to know Creation, fall, deliverance, and restoration. These are found in Genesis, Exodus, and in the Gospels. Come back and we’ll go into some tools for reading and understanding the Bible at a deeper level.

God bless!

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